At 30 years old, Anna Kiesenhofer claimed by far the greatest achievement of her career as she rode on her own through the Fuji International Speedway to take the gold medal at the end of the women’s road race of the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020. The former triathlete, who took up cycling in 2014 while studying at the Universities of Vienna, Cambridge and Catalonia, had previously only won National Austrian Champion titles and a stage of the Tour Cycliste Féminin International de l’Ardèche, in 2016, prior to her stellar ride on Sunday.
Kiesenhofer is also the first Austrian female cyclist to claim a medal at the Olympic Games - and she did it as the only rider to represent her nation in the women’s road race. Among her male compatriots, only Adolf Schmal had climbed onto the podium of the Olympic Games, thanks to his exploits on the track in 1896.
Despite her scientific approach of her efforts and the mastery she displayed on Japanese roads, Kiesenhofer may well have been the most surprised of them all as she struggled to catch her breath while lying on the ground, both overwhelmed by the magnitude of her efforts and the understanding she had just become an Olympic Champion. She certainly isn’t as used to winning as the riders who followed her across the line, with the Netherlands’ Annemiek van Vleuten taking silver ahead of Italy’s Elisa Longo Borghini.
A peloton of 67 competitors set off from Musashinonomori Park in the early afternoon. The hot conditions and the demanding 137km ahead of them, featuring 2,692m of elevation, left little doubt as to the nature of the Olympic Champion to be crowned: only the bravest could survive the challenges of the day to arrive in the best position on the final 17.7km circuit.
But with most of the elevation concentrated into the mid-sections of the route, on the long climb of Doushi Road, quickly followed by the punchy ascent of Kagosaka Pass, tactical options were wide open ahead of a hilly and thrilling finale.
Five riders quickly made the break of the day: Anna Plichta (POL), Carla Oberholzer (RSA), Kiesenhofer, Vera Looser (NAM) and Omer Shapira (ISR). Selam Amha (ETH) and Mosana Debesay (ERI) tried to join them but stayed in pursuit for about 40km before they were reeled in by the bunch.
By that time, the gap between the front group and the peloton was up to 10’ but it didn’t deter other counter-attackers to launch their moves while the breakaway was thinning out. Perhaps sensing the necessity to react to such a gap, Ana Marina Espinola Salinas (PAR) and Catalina Anais Soto Campos (CHI) - both former UCI World Cycling Centre trainees - set off in pursuit while Looser and Oberholzer were dropped from the front.
With an important gap to the front, smaller teams of between one and four riders per nation, and the day’s main climb (Doushi Road) coming early, the favourites opened up their race a long way out from the finish. It was German and mostly Dutch women who were the most active in controlling the bunch early on.
The Oranje squad could still rely on a stellar cast to chase another gold medal at the Olympic Games, with the last two winners of the road race, Marianne Vos (2012) and Anna van der Breggen (2016), their regular companion Annemiek van Vleuten (who was leading the way before crashing out in 2016) and the rising star Demi Vollering.
Vollering attacked on the climb of Doushi Road, about 8km before the summit. She was quickly reeled in but the peloton stretched and lost strong riders such as Gerrmany’s Trixi Worrack, participating in her fifth successive Olympic Games.
From there on, the pressure only increased with a succession of violent accelerations. USA’s Ruth Winder went for her own attack but it was mainly the Dutchwomen who kept swirling off the front: Van Vleuten, followed by Vos, then Van der Breggen, and Van Vleuten again… and again.
The three-time UCI Road World Champion (once in the road race and twice in the ITT) opened a gap on the final slopes of the climb of Doushi Road and kept pushing on the following plateau. As the race entered the final 50km, Van Vleuten was chasing 5’40’’ behind the lead trio and 50’’ ahead of a group of around 25 riders – including her three Dutch teammates, who were closing any move from rivals such as Spain’s Margarita ‘Mavi’ Garcia and Great Britain’s Elizabeth Deignan.
Attackers kept pushing on the climb of Kagosaka Pass: Kiesenhofer dropped her breakaway companions, leading with a gap of 21’’ to Shapira and 41’’ to Plichta at the summit. Van Vleuten was still moving closer: 4’59’’ over the top, with 42 riders back together some 57’’ behind her.
Van Vleuten couldn’t maintain the chase on her own, with the likes of Belgium’s Lotte Kopecky and Poland’s Katarzyna Niewiadoma forcing a regrouping ahead of the final circuit. When Kiesenhofer went across the finish line for the first time (with 17.7km to go), she was 4’20’’ ahead of the favourites. Plichta and Shapira were back together, 2’ behind their former companion.
The riders in pursuit gave it their all to overcome the situation but Kiesenhofer was already out of reach. The fatigue could be read on her face and in each of her pedal strokes after more than 130km at the front of the race. Shapira and Plichta were caught within the last 5km, which only magnified Kiesenhofer’s resistance at the front and confused the Dutch riders, who thought they had reeled in every attacker at that point. Van Vleuten eventually surged from the bunch to take the silver medal ahead of Italy’s Elisa Longo Borghini, repeating her bronze medal from 2016.